Unions representing air traffic controllers, flight attendants support House bill to reauthorize FAA

Two of Capitol Hill’s prominent aviation-related labor unions have found more than one thing to support in the House proposal that aims to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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Specifically, one of the main thrusts of the 21st Century AIRR (Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization) Act, H.R. 2997, would be to transfer air traffic control (ATC) operations currently overseen by the FAA into a private, separate, not-for-profit corporation. The bill also would reauthorize FAA funding and other programs.

The time crunch is on for Congress. The FAA’s authorization expires Sept. 30, the same day the U.S. government’s funding authority runs out and the same day the federal government’s fiscal year (FY) ends. Once members of Congress return from their August break, that leaves little time both to draft a new FY budget and devise a plan to pass legislation that raises the nation’s debt ceiling—which if breached could have economic consequences that extend beyond U.S. borders.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi said H.R. 2997 gained the support of the union representing roughly 20,000 members because the bill “fully aligns with NATCA’s policies, practices and core principles.”

“This bill protects our workforce — including pay, benefits, retirement, and collective bargaining rights,” Rinaldi said in a written statement.

The union’s principles, NATCA Communications Director Doug Church told Transportation Today, include:

  • Protecting the professionals who ensure the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System in their employment relationship, including their rights and benefits;

  • Maintaining safety and efficiency as the top priorities;
  • Providing a stable, predictable funding stream that adequately supports ATC services, staffing, hiring and training, long-term modernization, preventative maintenance, and ongoing modernization of the physical infrastructure; and
  • Ensuring continued service to all segments of the aviation industry.

The Washington, D.C.-based NATCA represents skilled air traffic controllers, engineers and other aviation safety-related professionals, and includes numerous corporate members, such as Mitre, SAIC, Thales, Raytheon, NBP Corp., Harris, Aireon, and Inmarsat.

Church said the group made the decision to support the bill “after extremely careful review, consideration and deliberation.”

“We made sure that we clearly understood how this bill would protect the National Airspace System and allow it to continue to grow, as well as how it would protect the men and women who are the backbone of the system,” Church said.

As issues around ATC funding and possible reform have been discussed during the past several years, Church explained, “NATCA has been supremely focused on the crucial need for a stable, predictable funding stream to operate and improve the National Airspace System.”

“The 21st Century AIRR Act meets [our] four core principles so that is why NATCA supports it. But NATCA remains open to considering any FAA reauthorization or FAA reform proposal, as long as it addresses the problems with the status quo and is not a for-profit model,” Church told Transportation Today.

NATCA also thinks that H.R. 2997 proposes a very diverse 13-member board of directors for the private spin off that would oversee ATC operations. It would be comprised of representatives from airlines, employee unions, and general aviation and airport trade groups, among others.

“We think it is a very fair and diverse makeup of aviation stakeholders,” Church said. “In fact, it is even more diverse than the board that was proposed in last year’s House FAA Reauthorization bill,” which proposed four seats for airlines, but the bill never saw final action.

In comparison, this year’s H.R. 2997 proposes that the 13-member board include three seats represented by the airlines (one each for passenger, cargo and regional carriers) while general and business aviation would also each get one seat.

Other reasons for support

The nearly 50,000-member-strong Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) in D.C. also supports H.R. 2997, but has not taken a position on air traffic control reform.

“We leave the issue of ATC to those who work in the system,” AFA spokeswoman Taylor Garland told Transportation Today in an email.

But AFA supports the bill for its other proposed provisions.

“Our top two job and safety priorities are included in the 21st Century AIRR Act: 10 hours, non-reducible rest and a Fatigue Risk Management Plan for flight attendants, and protections against the ‘flag of convenience model’ in aviation,” Garland explained.

A flag-of-convenience airline is a carrier that is established in a country other than the home country of its majority owner(s) in order to avoid regulations of the home country, according to the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA).

“Flags of convenience are often used to decrease labor costs and undercut established markets,” says ALPA, which has called it a “job-killing business model.”

For example, by flagging or establishing subsidiaries in another country outside of where a majority-owner might operate, the owner then expects to take advantage of the other country’s less-restrictive labor and regulatory laws, ALPA says.

“That is why we support [H.R. 2997], in addition to a whole host of other safety priorities in the cabin that affect both passengers and crews,” Garland wrote.

AFA — which has lobbied to improve cabin air and the overall cabin environment for the last three decades — also supported a safety-related amendment being included in the Senate’s 2017 Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, S. 1405, which the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved in late July.

Generally, the Senate bill would reauthorize the FAA for four years and expand oversight of its NextGen technology upgrade program, but which rejected the ATC-FAA spin-off plan — despite President Donald Trump’s support for the idea.

Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) said he removed the privatization plan from his bill in an effort toward encouraging a bipartisan decision on the FAA’s future. And while Thune said he remains open-minded about moving ATC operations from FAA into a not-for-profit, non-governmental entity, he’s still concerned about the existing “sincerely held concerns” that still exist.

The Senate bill has been sent to the Senate floor.

When members of Congress return from August recess, the full House will need to vote on H.R. 2997, which House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), sponsor of the bill, hopes he can push over the finish line before working out differences with the Senate during conference negotiations.